Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Tribute To Gilbert Hernandez

This weekend, I'm paying tribute to the 30th anniversary of Love & Rockets by publishing several long out-of-print reviews I did a few years back, in anticipation of my review of L&R New Stories #5. The reviews covered the then-new series of paperback collections which replaced the individual trade paperbacks that appeared after each individual storyline from volume 1 of the series, as well as several other projects outside the official purview of L&R. We'll begin today with Gilbert Hernandez.


Fantagraphics is perhaps best known for launching the careers of Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez in the early 80s, with their hugely influential series Love and Rockets. Over the years, various stories from the series have been reprinted in over 20 volumes. The problem is that each artist has been producing new episodes of long-running stories for the duration of their run of the comic. As a result, it was sometimes difficult to follow the story from volume to volume, because many of the earliest volumes would print work by both brothers (as well as their brother Mario, an occasional contributor to the series). In addition, the earlier reprints also had other stories not related to their main narratives. While these stories are fascinating in their own right, it was again distracting for those simply looking to follow the increasingly complex central narratives.

Fantagraphics solved this problem in part by putting out gorgeous hardcover collections: Jaime's tales of Maggie & Hopey was appropriately and simply called Locas, while Gilbert's story of life in a small Latin American town was just called Palomar. Each reprinted the majority of the stories from Love and Rockets #1-50. The problem with these books is that they demand a lot of commitment from a new reader. They're high-priced items, with a look & feel that resembles a coffee-table book. In other words, they aren't necessarily the best way to get a new reader to delve into the worlds of Hoppers 13 and Palomar. In addition, some smaller stories that added color and texture to these worlds but didn't advance the overall narrative were cut. To that end, Fantagraphics has provided a nice compromise between their all-inclusive earlier L&R volumes and the oversized hardbacks. They are now reproducing a new series of Love and Rockets reprints with an attractive & eye-catching cover design by Jacob Covey. Each volume is meaty in its own right, totalling close to 300 pages. They're softbacks, and thus sell at a reasonable $14.95 apiece. Jaime's volumes are solely devoted to his Locas stories, and in chronological order, while Gilbert's do the same for Palomar. When FBI is done with this set of reprints, it'll actually present a more complete version of the story than what was presented in the hardbacks. There will be three volumes for Gilbert and three volumes for Jaime, plus a seventh volume that collects the various odds 'n ends from both. (There have been additional volumes printed for some of the stories from volum as Hernandez Bros. solo series.)
Gilbert ("Beto") Hernandez's Heartbreak Soup shows him at the top of his game from the very beginning. Whereas Jaime concentrated mostly on the adventures of 18-year-olds in the cities and suburbs of Southern California, Beto told his stories through multigenerational and mostly rural eyes. Throughout this volume, we see several generations of characters first as youngsters and then as adults, with Beto flashing back and forward as he sees fit. After introducing Chelo and the basics of Palomar, Beto launched right into "Heartbreak Soup", an awe-inspiring tale that delivers the tragic story of Manuel and Soledad, the rivalry of the mysterious Luba & Chelo (and then their eventual partnership), tomfoolery surrounding the buffoonish Tipin Tipin, and the achingly real difficulties of Heraclio as he struggles to fit in with other kids his age. The centerpiece of the story is a tree where a boy who had died years earlier is sometimes visible to his old friends, and which child winds up joining him under that tree.

Beto's sense of composition is remarkably assured for such a young artist, as is his character design. His style never quite reaches the level of sublime beauty and simplicity that Jaime eventually achieved, but then that style wouldn't quite be a match for the kinds of stories he tells in Palomar. These stories were also much less prone to the flights of whimsy present in Jaime's early work, muting the magical realist tendencies and doling them out in small doses.

After "Heartbreak Soup", there's one strong story after another: "Act of Contrition" (where Luba hooks up with Archie at her pal Ofelia's expense), "The Laughing Sun" (where Jesus, whom we met earlier as a child, goes crazy and nearly kills his baby and his friends have to reunite to go after him), "Ecce Homo" (a hilarious account of a picnic and the ways in which men act like idiots), "An American in Palomar" (where a foreign photographer sets the town a-twitter with promises of fame and glamor), "For The Love of Carmen" (the story of Heraclio [the most likeable of all Beto's characters] and Carmen's courtship and marriage), and the astonishing "Duck Feet" (a frightening hallucination of a story involving a visiting witch and a sickness that overtakes Palomar).

Heartbreak Soup is simply great cartooning from beginning to end. Beto would go on to make even more complex and haunting stories in the next volume, Human Diastrophism, which has one of my favorite stories of all time in comics.. I do think that any reader interested in the history of comics should have all of the Hernandez brothers' output through volume I of Love and Rockets at a minimum; it's a comics cultural requirement in my view. So many cartoonists of today were directly influenced by their character development, understanding of human relationships and ability to create what seemed to be living, breathing people. I wouldn't describe their work as avant-garde or experimental in comparison to some of today's more aggressively individualistic artists; in fact, "Los Bros." drew their influence from 60s Marvel comics, horror comics, monster movies, pro wrestling, Hank "Dennis the Menace" Ketcham and Dan "Archies" DeCarlo. They synthesized the clarity of that storytelling style with the kind of slice-of-life stories that had never before been seen in comics, and set them in locations that were also groundbreaking. The fact that the main characters were women, and that they were portrayed as familiar and flesh-and-blood characters, was not only groundbreaking but hugely inspirational for many cartoonists. I'd recommend Love and Rockets for any general reader interested in human sexuality, issues of gender and gender identification -- the meaning of what it is to be masculine or feminine are running themes for both artists. Beto & Jaime have only gotten better and more refined in their work.
In Gilbert's Palomar stories, there's a rawness that dominates the proceedings: raw anger, raw sexuality, raw passion for life, death and art. Unlike the intimacy of Jaime's stories that make so many people identify with his characters, Gilbert deliberately distances the audience from his characters with both a variety of narrative techniques and a frank exposure of everyone's flaws. Nowhere is that truer with Luba, the bombshell capable of horrendous acts of coldness and anger. Her dysfunctional relationship with her children reflects her affection for them and resentment towards them, and it culminates in nearly breaking her daughter's arm in a fit of rage. As the book progresses and we reach the end of the main Palomar stories, even the most likeable characters are shown to make mistakes as they progress through life. Gilbert the creator passes no judgment on his characters, letting all of them simply be human.

The tone of Gilbert's stories always had an air of living on borrowed time, as some kind of nameless doom threatened the world of Palomar. That sense of dread seemed to have been influenced by the 80's zeitgeist of the threat of nuclear war. The fact that the end of the world never came to pass didn't ease the tone of the stories; if anything, the level of angst only increased precisely because the world didn't end, even though everyone was expecting it. That sense of dread was made manifest by the book's extended narrative, Human Diastrophism, wherein a serial killer stalks Palomar. Beto ramps up the tension in this story: tension between Luba and her daughter Maricela, tension because of a group of monkeys infesting the town, tension because Tonantzin has suddenly decided to become political, tension between Luba and her various lovers, and of course the tension raised because of the killer. There's a shocking twist at the end of the story that echoes through the rest of the narratives in this volume.

The rest of the stories in this book turn their attention elsewhere, particularly on Luba's two sisters who were introduced in stories that took place outside of Palomar and will be seen in the next volume of the series. Gilbert creates one memorable character after another, spinning epics out of people he just introduced to the saga. My favorite was the superhuman Gorgo, a lovelorn gangster who fell for Luba's mother Maria and subsequently vowed to project everyone in the family. The genius of Gilbert is his ability to craft short stories that are comprehensible to anyone reading these characters for the first time, yet packed with deeper layers of meaning for long-time fans. He deftly manages to tie in virtually every plot thread in the collection's last story, "Chelo's Burden." The disaster that had hung over the town finally happened in the form of an earthquake, yet this event wasn't the end of Palomar, but rather only Luba's role in the community. This was the fitting end for the Palomar stories, but it only served to set up the final act for Luba's saga.
Gilbert carried that saga through various other series and it culminated in the second half of Love and Rockets V2 #20, in a story called "Venus and You". Venus is the daughter of Petra (Luba's half-sister), and in many ways is the character who is purest of heart in Gilbert's stories. It's only fitting that she should be the main character narrating the end of the story of Luba and her family. Venus talks to an elderly Luba towards the end, a Luba who finally wants nothing more than peace. The story ends with Venus embracing "the good madness", talking to the people in her life who have died and taking solace from their presence in her life. Venus is able to achieve a balance in her life that eluded her aunts and cousins.

Gilbert's draftsmanship was remarkably steady from his earliest work to his most recent comics. What has changed and deepened is his understanding of comics-as-language. As a result, he takes more formal and narrative risks. Beto takes the risk of confounding his audience with dizzying tonal and temporal shifts. There are long side-trips focusing on minor characters and extended meditations on sexual frustration. The shift to America and focus on Fritz & Petra's stories was all about neurosis, the search for meaning and a quest for identity in a shallow culture. Venus proved to be living the most authentic life of Beto's characters, balancing family, love and her own dizzying creativity; she was a fitting character to fade out on.

Of course, Gilbert can't quite let alone certain aspects of these stories. Fritz eventually quits her job as a therapist and becomes an actress in lurid, pulp b-movies. Gilbert has decided to adapt these movies he wrote about into graphic novels, the first of which is Chance In Hell. Fritz appears as a prostitute, but is really only a background character. The book concerns a burned-out city torn apart by war and inhabited by children whose daily life is punctuated by rape and murder. The main character is a young girl named Empress, a survivor who had to become cold and distant in order to hide her own emotional scars--the greatest of which was being separated from her father at an early age.

Her story is about auditioning potential father figures in her life, none of whom are really up to the job. The book is in a three-act structure, the first two of which climax with horrendous acts of violence. We go from Empress as a child, where she somehow survives the chaos surrounding her; to Empress as a teen, where she is disappointed by virtually every man in her life; to Empress as an adult, who has trouble connecting with her husband. As Empress' life and emotional makeup becomes more complex, so does Beto's narrative become more oblique and unusual. This book is a perfect merger of many of Gilbert's interests: pulpy stories with complicated emotional layering, vivid characters, family dynamics, daring narrative choices, action, sex, and a relentlessly downbeat and cynical vision of humanity. Chance In Hell works on so many levels, and while its unrelentingly grim tone can be difficult to process at times, one is rewarded by repeated readings.

Like Jaime, Dan DeCarlo's art is an important influence, but I'd argue that Steve Ditko is an even bigger one for Gilbert, along with certain aspects of EC Comics. Character design is Gilbert's greatest strength, both as writer and artist. He has always managed to make even his minor characters the center of whatever universe they happen to be inhabiting, using key exaggerations to make them immediately memorable and then introducing surprising layers of subtlety. Chance In Hell represents Gilbert at his peak as a creator, 25 years after he first began drawing Love and Rockets. Both he and Jaime continue to refine their styles, take new chances and carve out a unique & distinguished place in comics history. Their influence on several generations of artists is unmistakable, but what young artists should really take from them is their complete devotion to the art and a fierce desire to continue to evolve.


From the very beginning, Gilbert Hernandez' mythical Latin American town of Palomar was not immune to violence. Indeed, we see sex and violence converge in the very first Palomar story, as a man who was in love with his best friend wound up killing him in a fit of jealous rage. Throughout the Palomar saga, Gilbert's primary focus has been on the way sexual desire (fulfilled or frustrated) informs the actions of the adults in Palomar. Desire frustrated or denied often acted as a wellspring for conflict or even violence in these stories, and in particular led to the fetishization of desire. In the Palomar stories, that raw undercurrent was tempered by his other storytelling interests, especially Beto's exploration of family and family relationships as a force that ranged from beneficent to ambivalent and the way that children interrelate. The obvious affection Hernandez holds for his Palomar characters always gave these stories a sweet quality, even when dark events like a serial killer or an earthquake afflicted the town. One always got the sense, throughout its long history, that Palomar would always survive any threat. That is, perhaps one reason why Hernandez chose to quit telling stories about the town--there wasn't much left to tell about its future without destroying his creation.

Gilbert has often given vent to his darker explorations in stories either tangential to Palomar or outside of its scope completely. Let's first look at the handsome collection Beyond Palomar. This collects two storylines: "Love and Rockets X" and what is in many ways Beto's masterpiece, "Poison River". Both are sprawling, tense cast-of-thousands epics that offer vivid portraits of a particular set of times and places. "Love and Rockets X" is a masterwork of light character drama and visceral racial tensions. On the one hand, it's a goof on the band that named itself "Love and Rockets" in the 80's (after the comic), as a group of characters are the "real" Love and Rockets. On the other hand, it's a story built around a violent hate crime and the way various characters react to it. The story draws in Maricela (Luba's daughter) and her lover, who ran away from home and was never heard from again in the main Palomar storyline and introduces some characters who would have a major impact further down the line. It's a story about the exuberance of youth and the ways it can be crushed. It's about all forms of identity (racial, religious, ethnic, sexual) and the ways these differences often bring out the worst in others. It's a story with no pat resolution or answers, with some lives ended, some lives shattered, and many rash decisions made that alter some lives irrevocably.

As vivid as the characters in this story were and as tense as the conflict became, "Love and Rockets X" pales in comparison to "Poison River". The brief description of this story is that it details Luba's life from birth until the time that she came upon Palomar with Ofelia and decided to stay. We learn why Luba was always so guarded, and Ofelia so paranoid, but that information is secondary to the epic tale of crime bosses, revolutionary politics, savage violence, sexual fetishes, betrayals and counter-betrayals. It's like reading a comics version of a John Woo Hong Kong film like A Bullet In The Head. Hernandez pulls off the impressive trick of telling a story with enough plot for three or four stories while still providing some remarkably vivid characterization. His master stroke is using the then-naive Luba as the tent pole for the story--everything revolves around her, directly or indirectly.

What makes this perhaps his best-ever work is not just the complexity of the story and the numerous betrayals, surprises and reversals that occur over a period of decades. It's the complexity of the characters themselves, none of whom can be simplistically pigeonholed as "good" or "evil". Take Ofelia, for instance. She's a young revolutionary, a fiery and passionate intellectual who is working against the oppressive government. She's saddled with taking care of Luba (her cousin) when she's a toddler, and frequently smacks her around. At the same time, she teaches her to read and is the only real parental figure Luba has. All Ofelia has to do is shake her fist and Luba knows to clam up, or sit for hours in one spot while Ofelia goes off to meet her revolutionary friends or lover. That particular device is used to horrific effect when a car she's driving in with those friends is stopped by sadistic government troops, and her friends are killed and Ofelia herself is savagely raped and left for dead. As she's being assaulted, she sees a sobbing Luba and saves her life by shaking her fist so as to keep her quiet. The relationship between Luba and Ofelia is enormously complex, filled with a mixture of intense devotion & love along with loathing and resentment.

What propels the story is the way Luba develops as a character. Even if she is never at the center of the plotline, her existence serves as a catalyst for a number of events (many of which have to do with her mother Maria). Luba goes from being a blank slate to an innocent toddler to a naive teen to a bewildered young woman. For much of this story, things happen to her that she doesn't understand. She's a passive protagonist who is at the mercy of those who have chosen to protect her. The story ends with Luba becoming an active protagonist and Ofelia's equal and even master in many ways. Changing the nature of a protagonist without putting them through a standard "hero's journey" is yet another unique aspect of this story and why it's so unconventional while being so familiar.

More than any other Love & Rockets story I've read from Beto, "Poison River" is all about the intersection between sex and violence. Peter Rio is perhaps the best example, a violent man who fetishizes Luba's stomach for reasons that become clear (and disturbing) later in the story. He's incapable of true love or even regular sex because of his obsessions, and the most obsessive characters in this story are the most violent. The way that homosexual urges are supressed and the way in which they bubble up also lead to violence, as these desires are often impossible to reconcile. Many of the characters in the story are in pain and are trying to numb it. In Luba's case, she turns to drugs. For others, violence itself is a sort of anesthetic. For others, it's indulging in their fetishes. No character in this story can numb themselves for long; sooner or later, they have to face their pain and their desires, and it rarely turns out well for anyone.

The action of the story crackles off the page. For those readers used to the pleasantly ambling Palomar stories, the whip-crack pace and sudden reversals in this story may be a bit of a shock. There's more pure action in this story than in any other Beto tale, and it's not action in the bloodless Kirby sense (where a story is all action and momentum), but more in a Coen brothers sense--we feel the power of the violence of the story. It's not a game, it's not for fun, and this gives each death an enormous amount of emotional impact. This is no glorification of violence, but rather a story that portrays its impact with a great deal of care. By framing each chapter around a single character (or pair of characters), Beto is able to jump back and forth in time while still letting the reader understand that it's now time to focus in on the story of a particular character. His character design is astoundingly varied and his storytelling is remarkably assured.

Since that time, Gilbert returned frequently to Luba's clan, just recently finishing up their story. However, his interest in sex, violence and how they interrelate has only continued to grow. In the first four issues of Speak of the Devil (Dark Horse), he addresses these issues much more directly. It's telling, perhaps, that Hernandez depicts violence in graphic detail in these comics but chooses not to directly show nudity, which he does quite freely in Love & Rockets. I'm not sure if this was his own decision or one by editorial, but otherwise it's an interesting comment on American culture. The story feels influenced by lurid pulp traditions, though Beto starts slow and ratchets up the tension from issue to issue.

The story follows Val, a high school gymnast, who also happens to be a devil-masked peeping Tom. Things start to get especially interesting when she peeps in on her father and her very young stepmother, Linda. The cliffhanger at the end of the first issue sees Val caught by a gang of punks while she's in her mask. In the second issue, she's falling in love with her tormented friend Paul, who is being abused by his parents. Val still looks in on her stepmother (whom she professes to despise), this time when she's masturbating--but she finds that Linda is a more than willing object of the peeping Tom's desire. The cliffhanger this time sees Paul finding Val dressed as the devil, and he kisses her.

Up to this point, tensions simmer but haven't boiled over just yet. In the third issue, the tension becomes even greater as Val starts to slowly lose a grip on her sanity. Val had to miss the state finals in gymnastics because she injured her ankle (when she was running from the punks), but went to support her friend Patty, who has long had a crush on her. After she came home, she found Paul in the arms of Linda. He had come to her in the devil costume, and she was immediately drawn to him. Initially seemingly unfazed by that revelation, Val then grabs a knife and screams "Who wants it first?" as the issue ends. The most recent issue ratchets up the intensity another level, as we see the result of Val's attack--she hurts Paul but doesn't kill him, and is disarmed before she can get to Linda. The three of them all calm down, but the experience has affected them. After Paul is abused yet again, the three of them enter their house in disguise and brutally murder his parents, complete with a vicious "injury to the eye" motif on Paul's mother. The three of them realize that they're perfectly OK with what they've done, but that experience has permanently altered them. As the issue ends, we see Linda and Val luring a passing motorist to his doom.

This is one of the few periodicals that whose arrival at the comic shop is an eagerly-awaited event. I wondering just how far Hernandez is going to take this story, and how far he can go. It appears like the murderous trio is about to embark on a road trip or killing spree, and it's obvious that each of their own repressed sexual desires is a key to what triggered this cycle of events. Val's voyeurism and desire for her stepmother but inability to express or understand it led to her deepening her double life. Linda being turned on by the forbidden also helped lead to act out, while Paul's constant exposure to violence led to his own transformation. There were hints dropped in issue 4 where they may not be able to hide this transformation for long, and one almost gets the sense that they don't want to. Each issue feels like a punch to the stomach as Beto shockingly, stunningly turns characters that he carefully created as sympathetic figures into completely amoral monsters--and indirectly asks the reader what the line is. This is easily his most brilliant non-Fantagraphics work, and rivals some of his best stories for its sheer clarity and harshness.

By contrast, New Tales of Old Palomar #3 is almost a welcome relief to read in comparison, even though this issue has its own share of violence. A running theme in Gilbert's stories has been the nature of motherhood and caretakers. Many of the women who can't have children wind up becoming caretakers of children, like Ofelia or as noted in this issue, Chelo. Tonantzin is confronted with this issue rather dramatically, as a sort of mystical creature that appears in the form of a baby starts appearing to her. Learning how to banish and possibly destroy it, she instead spares it and leads it to safety. In the second story, we flash forward to the future, right before the huge earthquake at the end of the Palomar saga. Each story in the series has been titled "The Children of Palomar", and while the prior two issues dealt explicitly with children, this issue deals with ramifications of the earlier stories.

In particular, Chelo once again encounters the bizarre aliens she met in #2, and this time they pose as "bird scientists". Eventually, they invite her inside and attack her, eventually restraining her and plucking out her eye. She comes back to confront them and a small earthquake comes, killing the aliens. It's as though Palomar itself rose up to protect one of its most ardent supporters. There's a sense that Chelo is the town's mother figure, down to fining women who dress too provocatively in her role as sheriff. I thought the final issue of this series might see Chelo's early childhood, but instead Hernandez chose to write a story that tied up the events of the first two issues and firmly established Chelo as the emotional center of Palomar. There's a purity of purpose in her character that is rarely seen in Hernandez' stories, and it's a fitting goodbye to this world that he created. It'll be interesting to see how he continues to develop his interest in pulp fiction, given the increasingly dark bent to his art.

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